Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Nursing in Public: My experience

Welcome to the July 2010 Carnival of Nursing in Public

This post was written for inclusion in the Carnival of Nursing in Public hosted by Dionna and Paige at All week, July 5-9, we will be featuring articles and posts about nursing in public ("NIP"). See the bottom of this post for more information.


When I began nursing Marko, I was unusually lucky. I am the daughter of a mother who nursed six children, four of whom were younger than me, so I saw them nursing as I grew up. Her mother also nursed, though I'm not sure how much. John's mother nursed some of hers as well, so the sight of a mother nursing is not unfamiliar to him at all. In fact, in my case, I have rarely seen an infant bottlefeed, and I have never bottlefed an infant myself. So many mothers go into parenting without ever having seen anyone nurse a baby. Is it any wonder that it seems weird or awkward to them?

For me, it never seemed weird. Harder than I imagined, definitely -- my mom always made it look easy. And I didn't give birth surrounded by helpful female family members, but by distinctly unhelpful lactation consultants who caused more trouble than they solved. But the actual act of breastfeeding was completely normal to me, and I never once felt like I was doing something unnatural, inappropriate, or invasive. I was just feeding my baby, in the normal way that feeding a baby is done.

Although I was raised to be very modest, I have never seen my chest as anything particularly sexual. As far as I can see, it's just a chest with some mammary glands on it, and I don't really see why men are supposed to find them so attractive. I know that they do, so I keep them covered out of respect for those men, but it really doesn't make particular sense to me.

Like I said, I was raised to be very modest, so even my mother hasn't seen much of me since I was ten or eleven. My first visit with the obstetrician was very embarrassing for me. Not, as I said, because anything seemed sexual, but simply because I don't like my body to be seen as a piece of meat -- something to be poked and prodded but not really seen or connected with me. I don't know if this makes sense. I just would like people to get to know me before grabbing at any part of me -- even my hand or my hair. I absolutely cannot stand being touched by strangers.

During my hospital stay to deliver Marko, though, I lost a lot of that sensitivity, purely through necessity. I think I have it back now, for the most part. But I remember sitting with the lactation consultant, nursing Marko, when there was a knock on the door and the (male) pediatrician came in. The lactation consultant deftly threw a blanket over me and the baby, but I felt confused. "What's the big deal?" I wanted to ask. "They're just breasts!" It was as if someone had thrown a blanket over a baby bottle for fear someone should see it. It simply did not compute that this would be considered private. I felt like I imagine those African women do, who go around in nothing but a loincloth. They would give you quite a funny look, I expect, if you suggested they put on a shirt to "cover up"!

Back home, however, I did begin to feel embarrassed. I had my mother-in-law and four sisters-in-law visiting, and I had no idea how they would feel about seeing me nurse. Especially the younger girls -- I was afraid of shocking them, I guess. I never asked how they would feel about it -- I just went and nursed in the bedroom. As I hunched on the edge of my bed, I would get grumpier and grumpier. I did not want to be tucked away in a tiny bedroom while everyone else watched movies out in the living room. Since nursing was really the one thing I had to do -- the rest of the time the others held the baby while I slept, because I was exhausted -- I felt like I had no place in my own home.

If I had to do it again, I would have nursed in front of them and not made such a big deal! They were all women, after all. If they were uncomfortable, they could very well have gone into the kitchen or the bedroom themselves. And, as they told me time and time again, they were there to help, and they didn't want to be treated as "company" or
catered to in any way. Besides, the younger girls hadn't had a chance to see their younger siblings nurse, because they were the youngest. Wouldn't it have been fair for me to give them what I had been given -- the chance to see a baby fed in the normal way, so that they had some idea what it was like?

My first trip out in public was to go to church. Since I was in the choir, I sat in the loft -- an ideal spot for a nursing mom! Especially since I am a soprano and sit surrounded by women. But I was still uncomfortable -- still felt like others would be awkward about it -- so I dragged a chair down into the stairwell and nursed there. One of the other choir women asked if I was nursing the baby, and told me she'd nursed all hers, giving me a ton of helpful information. But still, I was too scared to nurse around them!

My first time nursing in public was at a steakhouse. My friend Joy took me there "so that I could get out" -- not realizing that I really would have just as well stayed home, but I guess it was good for me to rejoin society a little bit. (This was when John was gone, so I was getting very solitary.) In the middle of dinner, the baby started to fuss and root around. "It's okay if you nurse in front of me," Joy said. "You know I nursed my daughter." That reassurance was all I needed, so I draped a receiving blanket around him and nursed him.

Ugh, I wish I had practiced this beforehand! It is so hard to latch a newborn on under a blanket! They can't see what they're doing, and you can't see what you're doing, and neither of you really have the hang of nursing yet. It was so terribly frustrating, and I'm pretty sure I flashed half the restaurant when the blanket kept slipping. Oopsie. I didn't care for my own modesty, but I did feel bad for the other patrons -- though, looking back on it, it's quite likely they never noticed. We were sitting in a booth, and the place wasn't very full. Who knows?

Now, I don't often nurse in public just because I am not often in public. However, I do know how important frequent nursing is to keep up milk supply (as well as keep baby happy and contented), so when I'm in public, I feed him whenever he shows signs of hunger. That means that I nurse him in Mass about 75% of the time, and I have also nursed him in Starbucks and in the library. I do use a blanket to cover up, mostly because my husband seems to expect it and always hands it to me, but I would completely understand if others didn't use one. After all, most babies don't like their heads covered up, and like I said, it's a huge fuss and bother. Often you end up being less modest with a blanket because the dang thing is always falling off. However, I figure people will be more understanding of the occasional flashing when they see that I have a blanket and am trying! I really have no idea, though, because I don't understand people's discomfort with nursing. My general opinion is just that they haven't seen it enough, because if they had, they probably wouldn't even notice someone doing it.

The worst, though, is nursing around my young, single, male, Catholic friends. I know that 90% of adults have seen way more than I'd be showing while nursing, whereas kids don't generally know enough to be scandalized in the first place (they probably wouldn't notice I was nursing unless they already know about nursing), but that small group of Catholic guys -- well, I know that they try to avoid seeing so much. I have no idea if the fact that I am nursing makes it completely unsexual for them, as it does for me. I just can't read their minds, and so I get embarrassed. I totally wouldn't care of these friends saw everything I've got -- I know and trust these people, and so it doesn't bother me -- but I fear that they would care, so I do what I can. Once, while spending a whole day with one guy friend, I tried to avoid nursing the baby so much. That backfired terribly. Baby was fussy, and when I did finally give in and let him nurse, he was too upset to latch on under the blanket. In the end, I gave up and locked myself in the bedroom again, feeling like a leper just because I wanted to give my baby a snack. I really hate being locked away and left out of things. (And for you who say, "Well, being a parent means getting left out of some things," that's quite true. In fact, I am left out of most social things I would otherwise do, because we can't handle long days or late nights. But for someone to come to our home to see us, when there is no real reason why I can't hang out with them, and I'm in the bedroom anyway? Well, it's just frustrating.)

I would be open to input on this problem. It's all very well to nurse under a blanket now and again, but it gets to be a huge problem if I only nurse like that for a long time. He gets distracted and never really nurses long enough to be satisfied. But it is very important to me to protect the sensibilities of my guy friends (yes, even though I could care less about the other patrons of a Starbucks! Call me inconsistent if you like) and I don't want them to feel awkward when they come over. Any opinions? Ibid, Propter Quid, Sean? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Right now I'm trying to figure out ways to nurse modestly without a blanket. My mom always managed, as far as I can remember. It never seemed immodest in the slightest to me -- I would barely notice she was nursing. (Whereas a gigantic blanket says, "Look at me! I'm nursing a baby here!" Everyone notices, and it can make them stare.) I've heard the suggestion of wearing two shirts -- one you can pull up, and the other a camisole that you can pull down. That way almost nothing is exposed, and the baby's head covers what is. (Except for wiggly babies who won't stay on, like mine!) Another thing that works, which I discovered at Mass last Sunday, is to wrap the blanket around the baby without putting it over his head. I left a gap around his face, but pulled the blanket around the gap so that it stood up a bit, so you would have to be breathing down my neck to see anything. (I'm not sure I'm describing this well enough, but I don't have a picture -- sorry.) Also, I'm hoping to sew a couple of nursing tops.

Sometimes I wonder if I am trying too hard. After all, I do not think anyone has a right not to see a baby nursing. The baby has a right to eat, and you have a right not to look if it bothers you. But your sensibilities -- developed by living in a bottlefeeding culture -- are not protected by law or any particular "right." I also don't think children will be harmed by seeing a mother nurse her baby. This is a natural, normal thing, and any harm that's done is done by the adults around who screech, "Don't look! There are nasty, yucky breasts showing!" Whereas kids who grow up around nursing babies don't even notice they're there. And I support wholeheartedly the various mothers who nurse in public, whether covered or not, and I am outraged by anyone who asks them to move to a bathroom or get off an airplane. (Can you imagine being kicked off a plane for nursing? Would they rather have the baby scream for five hours? But, sadly, it happens.)

However, even though I don't think anyone has the right to make me be considerate of their sensibilities, I do try to be considerate anyway. I think they are wrong to think there is anything yucky or inappropriate about nursing a baby, but since they do think that, I will try to make sure they don't see anything that will upset them. I also want to make sure my husband is comfortable with what I do ... I make most of the parenting decisions and he supports them, but I think he has some say in how much of his wife's body is visible in public.

So, my journey with nursing in public is incomplete. I still don't know exactly how I feel about it or what I should do. And I haven't found a system that works for me in all circumstances yet. Probably in a few months, I will find that I have arrived, without knowing quite when it suddenly became easy and comfortable. But there is also the possibility that I will be doing my best, trying not to call attention to myself, and someone will come up to me and ask me to leave. And most likely, instead of giving all my (very good) arguments about nursing in public, I will blush and stammer and slink away. Unfortunately, in Virginia, the only protection nursing mothers have is that we cannot be charged with indecent exposure. (We can also nurse on all state property, and I believe we are excused from jury duty.) Unlike many states, we have no law specifically protecting nursing mothers, so business owners have the right to ask us to leave. In Pennsylvania, I could have said (and planned to say), "The law forbids you from harassing me or asking me to leave. I have the right to nurse my baby anywhere I have the right to be." Here, I have no such legal backing, and, being a person who hates being put on the spot, I will probably just leave. Perhaps I will write a letter of complaint, and perhaps I will end up with a ton of publicity and people will accuse me (as people often do to nursing mothers) of being an exhibitionist, of just wanting my 15 minutes of fame, of using my child to make a statement, and they will offer to come urinate on me because "hey, that's natural too! Har har!"

Until that time comes, though, I'm going to keep muddling through, trying my best to make everyone comfortable, but my baby first.

Art by Erika Hastings at

Welcome to the Carnival of Nursing in Public

Please join us all week, July 5-9, as we celebrate and support breastfeeding mothers. And visit any time to connect with other breastfeeding supporters, learn more about your legal right to nurse in public, and read (and contribute!) articles about breastfeeding and N.I.P.

Do you support breastfeeding in public? Grab this badge for your blog or website to show your support and encourage others to educate themselves about the benefits of breastfeeding and the rights of breastfeeding mothers and children.

This post is just one of many being featured as part of the Carnival of Nursing in Public. Please visit our other writers each day of the Carnival. Click on the links below to see each day’s posts - new articles will be posted on the following days:
July 5 - Making Breastfeeding the Norm: Creating a Culture of Breastfeeding in a Hyper-Sexualized World
July 6 – Supporting Breastfeeding Mothers: the New, the Experienced, and the Mothers of More Than One Nursing Child
July 7 – Creating a Supportive Network: Your Stories and Celebrations of N.I.P.
July 8 – Breastfeeding: International and Religious Perspectives
July 9 – Your Legal Right to Nurse in Public, and How to Respond to Anyone Who Questions It


Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

I don't think you are strange for wanting to cover up around one group, but not caring around another. My level of discretion definitely differs around different people. Even though I believe that a nursing mother should be able to breastfeed whenever/however she feels comfortable, *I* feel more comfortable being discreet around certain people. The only problem I have is when mothers feel like they don't have a choice in the matter - that they MUST cover up or move around certain people.

Rebeka C said...

My best advice is to pay close attention for your own security, on how you nurse at home, when nobody is watching you. Unless you're just plain taking your shirt off, you're probably really not showing much, if anything. Maybe nurse in front of a mirror. Try to remember that with your head perched on top of your neck, YOU are going to see far, far more than anyone else, even people sitting right next to you!

You might just ask your friends how they feel about it. Honestly, when it was me, I had a moment of extreme concern about how one of my dh's friends felt about me nursing when he came over. Then I had an epiphany: This is MY house! I'm not going to feel obligated to go hide IN MY OWN HOME because someone else has silly "sensibilities". Amazingly, he got over it. It made him uncomfortable at first until I pointed out to him that God gave women their breasts *to feed their children*. If seeing me use them for that purpose bothered him, he was welcome to step outside until I was done. The home is mine and my childs. If I can't nurse comfortably there, I'll never be able to nurse comfortably *anywhere*.

Nursing in public is a wonderful thing and I have to agree with your sentiments about covering up. It's a real chore and attracts way more unwanted attention than not using one at all. Take it from me: I have very, very large breasts and I manage to nurse without flashing the world (most of the time :p). I would either use a button-down shirt (which you can open a up from the bottom and use half of it to "cover" any part of your breast the baby isn't) or a big t-shirt. I'd just pull the shirt up until babe was latched and then pull the shirt back down over my breast until it was right by baby's nose. Worked like a charm!

But seriously, practice at home until you are comfortable about what you are and are not showing. Being gracious about other people's sensibilities is perfectly fine but taking it to a point where you are handicapping yourself when you don't even really have anything to be concerned about isn't fair to you! And yes, you matter! It's ok to expect them to be gracious about the fact that you need to feed your baby. They are grown ups, I'm sure they can be reasonable about it.

Anonymous said...

This post almost describes me! When I NIP, I usually use a cover, or nurse on my Moby. I feel a bit uncomfortable at times, especially around men. I really loved your comment about your husband having a say in how much of his wife is exposed, I agree completely. If you want to cover up, but not with a blanket, you could buy or make a nursing cover. Get one that has boning in it so there's a little window to your baby. I like having a cover, but I sometimes take it off after latching since it's so hot! When I wear a nursing tank (they're cheap at Target and Walmart), it is much easier to be discrete. People come up to see the baby not realizing that she's nursing. I've also heard that ring slings are really nice to nurse in esp. in public. Good luck to you and thanks for sharing your story!

Sheila said...

Rebeka: I actually did "man up" and ask two of my closest male friends if they minded. I was about to nurse and everyone was falling all over themselves trying to hand me a blanket or offer their chair. I just said, "I'm only covering up for you guys; for myself, I really couldn't care less." There was a sound of relieved laughter, and the guys both said that they were only worried about my comfort and they didn't care what I did.

And yet -- they still kept handing me the blanket. So I draped it around the baby, but without smothering his face. (It is HOT under there!) I just still feel kind of unsure about their comfort level, since they SAID they didn't mind but still ACTED as if they were uncomfortable. *shrug*

I need to learn to nurse in a sling; I still haven't figured it out. It would be really handy, because I love to babywear but hate having to take him out every time I want to nurse him!

Fidelio said...

Sheila, the two shirts method was the only one that ever worked for me (well, a nursing tank would have been good, too, if I'd ever decided to put out for one).

Also, don't be too bummed by the prospect of nursing alone in a dark room. Pretty soon, even your quiet and familiar house will be sooooo interesting to that smart little guy, that he won't be able to concentrate on nursing anyplace, anytime, anyhow. Argh! It is an awful stage, with lots of dark bedroom nursing, but then everyone adapts and you can go back into the living room. :)

mystic_eye_cda said...

I find for a baby that unlatches suddenly the best thing is a plain old baggy t-shirt (or any baggy shirt).

Unhook nursing bra under your shirt before you lift it (or pull up your bra or whatever it is you do). Position the baby in a nursing position, pull up the shirt as little as possible and latch them on.

Just let the shirt fall unless it bothers baby or is so baggy its covering their face. Then when they pull off, there's nothing holding your shirt up and it falls over your breast without any help from you. It may not go all the way back to normal but it will normally cover the bread PDQ.

Anonymous said...

I did the same thing, ages ago. If you want to continue nursing with a blanket, find a nursing cover or make one. You need a lightweight piece of fabric, some boning for the top end so you can see baby, and a strip of fabric to make a strap to go around your neck. They're really easy to make and not hard to find at all. I nurse my 2 year old every week at Mass and we use the nursing cover. It sounds odd, but I have DS trained to pull out the cover when he wants to nurse at church. He pulls it over my head, ducks his head under it and I give him my breast. It works well for us because he knows what to do. There will be times when they fuss to much and refuse to use the cover...that's when I'd go to the back of the church or a corner and face the wall.
I learned how to nurse in a sling from a LLL leader. If you only go to one LLL meeting to learn to nurse in a sling, it's totally worth it!
I completely understand where you come from though with wanting to cover up. I'm more apt to cover up in front of DH's guy friends, hit and miss if my family is around and will probably never cover up around my in-laws again. In fact, the only time I had to leave the room when I was nursing around my in-laws was during DS's distracted phase where he wouldn't nurse in front of people and we had to go somewhere quiet with no people for him to look at.

Sheila said...

Thanks for all the advice, people!

I really HAVE to learn to nurse in a sling. I'm going to be teaching a class next year and I would love to be able to nurse without the kids knowing I was doing it. (Is it even possible to be that savvy?)

Yesterday I tried to nurse with a blanket in Mass and I truly was the example for "why not to nurse in Mass." People were standing directly behind me, so I knew they could see everything I could see. Only I couldn't latch him on without being able to see. He was latching onto the blanket, onto his hand, onto my shirt, and so forth. Every time I finally got him on for 2 seconds, a bell would ring or the organ would play or we'd have a response and he would jerk off and try to find where the noise was coming from. By the time I gave up on fighting with him and took him out, he was too upset to nurse. (He reaches that stage incredibly quickly, unfortunately.) So I had to just rock him and rock him and rock him to get him to calm down enough to go in at Communion time. So frustrating! Hope this stage passes.

Anonymous said...

Hey Sheila!
I lurk in the blogosphere these days and you're on the list of blogs I read. I've got one of my own too, I'm just bad at updating...
Anyway, I saw a notice in the female latrine of our div. HQ with a notice posted for four nursing rooms on base. I was kind of impressed that they'd thought of that at all. I have no problem with moms nursing when/where the kids get hungry, but I think it's nice that they have the option of a quiet space if you need/want it.
Random thing of the day.
Sarah (the one in the Navy ;))

Sheila said...

Oh, that is nice to hear! Hope you're doing well, Sarah.

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